« John Frame Responds to Jeremy Jones' "Renewing Theology" | Main | Howard Brown Responds to Jeremy Jones' "Renewing Theology" »

September 23, 2008


Hi Sean--Greg here.

Thanks for such a generous and engaging post. You're modeling the very ethos we've been trying to talk about, so thanks.

Although you may (or may not) disagree on particulars, I think you are, generally speaking, in much more agreement with Jeremy than this thread suggests.

Here's what I mean.

A number of the posts (and yours suggests it) seem to imagine that his talk of creativity must mean "de novo, idiosyncratic theological work." This is not at all what he means.

Like you, Jeremy recognizes that all theology is of necessity contextual. (Though some of the responses still seem to imagine a theological plane free from the perils of context. A deeply naive theological mistake, as you know).

And like you, he recognizes that our respective contexts require things of us theologically. In some cases we have to resist the context. In some cases (though you don't seem to bring this out) we need to learn from it. But in all cases we must see that our theology is speaking into and out of a particular context.

Like you, Jeremy understands then that the theological task is BOTH preservation and construction.

Thus "creativity" is not about the adolescent pursuit of being fashionable. Jeremy understands, as you and I both do, that liberalism was borne on the wings of a breathless euphoria for novelty--as was the modernity from which it emerged. (Darryl, please stop suggesting that we don't know theological liberalism exists. We do. We just don't think that what we're suggesting in reformed catholicity has any relationship to it).

Creativity is about the hard work of taking the truth of the faith handed down to us, listening to the questions that emerge from our context, seeing the gifts that our context gives to us, and putting these all together in a way faithful to the Scriptures and attentive to the context. Which is why he appeals to Bavinck and Murray as much as to VanHoozer and Newbigin.

What's at issue is not whether the Confession can "handle whatever is thrown at it." This is not about contempt for the Confession. This is about theological method. What's at issue is not whether we like the Confession, but how we can take the faith handed down to us and contextualize it with the creativity, beauty, and fidelity that those 17th century British pastors and theologians did; building upon their work (as they built upon the innovative work of others) and carrying their contextualizing impulses forward into our own day. What's at issue is how we can honor not only the content of the Confession but also the creative theological methodology of the Confessional writers. The argument is that this is actually the more reformed thing to do!

Now, we may (or may not) differ as to how to do this creative work and as to where it ought to lead us, but by and large we seem unable to even get to those (more substantive) questions because of the energy spent in defending the creative task itself. Jeremy's talk is an apology for the creative theological task (as understood above) and (in my mind) an utterly persuasive critique of the sectarian theological rationale that undermines such a task.

And, for what it's worth, the Irenaeus/Tertullian example cuts both ways. They were seeking to defend a universal (and creedal) catholicity--that which was believed by the church across the world "as with one mind." This doesn't strike me as exactly the spirit that characterizes our own larger theological discourse. But it is, happily, precisely the impulse of reformed catholicity.

Sean, you're a great voice in these conversations. I'm eager to hear more of your thoughts about these matters.

Peace from the Blue Ridge. GT

If you ever want to reassure yourself that sola scriptura never meant that the Bible is the only book you’re supposed to read, flip back to the index of authors cited in your copy of Calvin or Luther sometime. Those guys, and many Reformed luminaries have followed suit, were very well read in the history of Western theology. How else could they have criticized certain aspects of it so effectively?

That being the case, when Jones calls us to a Reformed Catholicism, he is right that it is no innovation. On the other hand, it was a little disappointing that a case for Reformed Catholicism appealed to no one earlier than Schaff, 5th century amulets notwithstanding. Maybe the handouts, to which I had no access, remedied this chronological lopsidedness. In any case, I am reminded of the advice C.S. Lewis gave to read one old book to every new book. Given that we are past a score of centuries now, I count Schaff as new.

That’s why it was encouraging to see a strategic reference or two to Irenaeus and Tertullian by Lucas. And this is prescient: “perhaps the way forward for the renewal of theology might actually through a renewed appreciation for and embrace of the confessional commitment and traditions of the church catholic and especially of our own particular branch of the church, Presbyterianism.” Yes, Reformed renewal through Reformed resourcement! It’s already happening to some extent. 20 years ago a lot of Turretin and Bavinck was inaccessible to the English reader. Richard Muller’s impressive intellectual archeology of Protestant scholasticism is the tip of the iceberg. Actually, Schaff is a pretty good example of the kind of renewed and rigorous attention to the theological heritage that we would really benefit from were it reincarnated in our time. This resourcement is not and need not be the concern solely of the PCA.

Jones argues, and Frame seems to concur, that we Presbyterian progeny of Machen idolize the past, dream about a Golden Age, and descend into sectarianism. They might be right about that. If they are right, I contend that one important reason is not that we spend too much time on the past, but rather not enough. Golden Age infatuation is not the product of mature judgment and a well informed mind, it is instead a sophomoric disease that a deep and lasting study of the sources will dispel because a deep and lasting study of the sources will ultimately confront you with the inadequacies and failures in the era you nevertheless, but now more wisely, love. Our seminaries turn out too many graduates who take a church history course or two and assume they have it all down. At this point they can either become Golden Agers, or they can become those who aim to critique or advance Reformed theology because we must be always reforming. But a lot of the time, the cure is worse than the sickness because the doctor doesn’t really understand the patient or what ails him. What is more, in this case the patient is himself a brilliant physician. Then again, a lot of the new and creative ideas, or perspectives, really are, in large part, repackaging jobs; genuine innovations in theology are relatively rare. Accordingly, while it may not be fair to equate current positions with past positions, or to attack a new idea by associating it with old errors, it is still generally judicious to look at historical precedents.

A few other points: Does Jones think anyone currently models what he aspires to? Who comes closest? A living example would be most illuminating, perhaps most compelling.

Re: catholic creedal orthodoxy being more basic than the Reformed distinctives. I know Jones wants to be both catholic and Reformed, and so wouldn’t stop with the catholic creedal orthodoxy part, but I just wanted to point out that, at least as far as I know, Pelagius had no issues with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed of 381, and he probably would have signed on to Chalcedon too.

Finally, the Reformed resourcement is not antiquarian traditionalism; it is an important part of the only way forward, because any other way requires historical amnesia and that precludes progress. Moreover, it is not an attempt to value theology or tradition over Scripture. It is rather an attempt to apprentice ourselves to some master readers of Scripture, to learn their craft, and in that learning to develop exegetical, theological, and pastoral skills of our own which we can then go out and use for Christ and his Kingdom. Recovering the Reformed heritage may seem like the long way around; it is in fact the shortest way home.

Rich: Reformed resourcement theology. Brilliant.

Greg: I wasn't suggesting that Jeremy or you are liberal. My point concerned what your project of denominational renewal does with liberalism. (Believe it or not, a liberal doesn't just walk up to you and announce, "I'm a liberal, denounce me.") (And believe it or not, plenty of "evangelicals" in both the PCUSA and PCUS would not oppose liberalism.) In other words, what is theological error and how does a project of theological creativity guard against error. That's one reason for having creeds and confessions. If we need to revise them, fine, then we need to revise them. But they also guard against error.

Hi, Sean I remember Bob Burns introducing me to you a couple GA's ago in Atlanta. Your candor was gracious and welcoming then as it is now.

First to clear up something that I thought you may have heard me saying. No I don't think theology is ever de-contextualized, that was my point with saying everyone is enculturated. But I do think that theology can and often times more than we want to admit is contextualized by us as authors for an audience or culture other than the one we're engaging. The reasons for this can be several, not just limited to what Jones referred to as myopia or megalomania although his terms were helpful to me and continue to stir reflection.

Sean you said, "To act as though theology needs to be contextualized misses the point, IMO; rather, we need to be self-critical about how our theology is already contextualized and self-conscious about the way our cultural system affects our articulation and witness of theology." I couldn't agree more I would just add one item here which may in fact be no addition at all, we need to aware of when our theology is 'mis'-contextualized. To me the way toward awareness isn't a turn to the past alone but a thoughtful engagement of the present with the art of what Vanhoozer has tagged "cultural exegesis."

The renewal of theology comes not merely from preservation of our Reformational heritage BUT ALSO engagement with our present cultural horizons. We are contextualized by our cultures and to be sure there is a passiveness to that enculturation but we also need to be active in the present. For instance Luther may have been passively shaped by his Late Medieval Scholastic setting but he was also very actively contextualizing his theology to the religio-political questions of his day. Renewal is preservation with construction. Or as Carl Ellis put it to me at this past GA; "every theological transformationalist has to be a functioning preservationalist..."

(I feel like I'm talking in altruism's here, anyway thanks for engaging this feed. Grace and Peace Sean)

Those who've read any of my comments in the past week or so have probably noticed that I'm not a professional theologian. I realize my tact needs improvement. I'm not a seminary student either, though I hope to be some day. But I am a concerned member of the PCA. If my tone has been offensive in any way, I apologize. But I certainly hope that the perceived "ethos" in which I've expressed my concerns hasn't invalidated their content.

Greg said: "This is not about contempt for the Confession. This is about theological method."

Greg, How do you distinguish between belief and practice? It sounds like you're calling for renewal in the "content" of our Presbyterian beliefs, not just a renewal in their application given our current cultural "context". Can you site any of the reformers who support your concept of "creative theology" as an accurate expression of Semper Reformanda?

If your concerns are about creativity in our "methods" more than our beliefs, then why criticize the confessions at all? Their purpose is to help define WHAT we believe, not HOW we express our beliefs in a given cultural setting. For many of us, as soon as you start talking about getting creative in our theology (which is the study of God, not man's methods) what we hear from you is that the biblical truth contained in the WCF is outdated and therefore culturally irrelevant. If I've misunderstood you, and you don't believe that we should adapt the content of the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" for a postmodern audience, if it's not about cultural capitulation, then what exactly DO you mean by your call for creativity in PCA's theological task?

to GT: Hi, Greg: thanks for your (as always) thoughtful comments. I agree that Jeremy and I have far more in common than not; that was why I led with three major areas of agreement that I'm sure you recognized as being marinated in Vanhoozer. I don't think people should run past those areas of agreement too quickly; they were actually pretty significant--on the task of theology and the evangelical, catholic, and orthodox orientation to that task.

Also, I meant in my piece to raise questions (I guess I'm an academic at heart) that were meant to move the conversation forward. I know that Jeremy and you don't see a tension between creativity and unoriginality (and as I explained to Kyle Wells, there is a sense in which I don't either). However, we both know that academic careers are made by "innovative" creativity--big time publishers don't publish the same old thing. And so, when I hear "creative, constructive theology," I want to ask the questions about how that relates to innovation. I hope you think those are fair questions to ask.

The other major question I asked centered on the relationship between theology and history--I worry that question may be skipped by in our conversation and smaller debates over words like "creativity" and "originality" and "contextualization." Because it seems to me that this is the more fundamental question with which we are wrestling: how do we witness to the apostolic tradition in the context of our own times in faithfulness and relationship to the witnesses of previous times?

And that is what gets us to these evangelical and catholic and orthodox "limiters," to Irenaeus and Tertullian, to Calvin and the Westminster Divines, to Hodge, Thornwell and Dabney, to Buswell and Henry (and others beside). What makes me nervous is a purported "biblicism" that fails to reckon well with historical/confessional witnesses; what I hear Jeremy worried about is a bounded confessionalism that fails to do justice to the biblical text and contemporary moment.

But if we agree on the nature of theology's task, which I set forward in the first paragraph, then concerns about each others naivete (or worse) should be able to be set aside to deal with the specifics of the results--is this theological account better or worse than that theological account? But this may take us too far afield (at least in this response--I've got to go to class!). Thanks again, brother--you bring out better thoughts in me. sml


Thanks for your energetic participation in the forum.

You mentioned above, "In other words, what is theological error and how does a project of theological creativity guard against error. That's one reason for having creeds and confessions. If we need to revise them, fine, then we need to revise them. But they also guard against error."

More specifically, I want to focus on your statement, "If we need to revise them fine, then we need to revise them."

I am interested in hearing your perspective on how the work of revision can take place. To head off a reference to the BCO, I ask this as a matter of social action. Practically, how does the work of revising succeed?

Having asked you, I'll state my sense of why this is difficult and why the difficulty is a good thing.

If Standards in most (any?) human endeavors are to be "standards," it seems they should be somewhat difficult to revise. Standards that are easily and frequently revised are not sturdy. (Caveat: there may be realms of human endeavor, perhaps edge of science inquiry, where standards in a highly niched field do evolve quickly.)

I think it a good thing that the Westminster Standards are difficult to revise.

But how are they to be revised. I'd like to entice you, if I may, to work with me on a hypothetical revision XYX. (I'm purposefully avoiding specific controversies recently debated in the PCA.)

If I believe that Westminster chapter XYZ should be revised, how do I do this? If I advance my case, I will be ruled out of order. The courts of the church, probably at the lowest level, will deem my beliefs in violation of the Westminster Standards.

Agreed. My view that doctrine XYZ should be revised DOES violate Westminster. **How could a proposed revision of Westminster NOT violate Westminster?**

If I somehow succeed in seeing my proposed revision make its way through the courts of the church and GA asks a study committee to study whether my proposed revision is in accord with Westminster, again...my proposed revision of XYZ is likely to be deemed out of accord with Westminster.

But since I began my quest, I have always agreed that my proposed revision was out of accord, but that Westminster needs to be revised in light of Scripture.

Socially it seems unlikely that I will succeed because in my years of studying sociology of knowledge, culture and religion, it seems that a revision of a doctrinal idea will take years to gain purchase on a large enough swath of elders that they see the merits. If their consciences are bound by Westminster, de facto any challenge (proposed revision) is out of bounds.

But I couldn't take years to make my case. In fact, an RE or TE is bound by oath to notify the presbytery if his beliefs change.

The entire system seems predicated on ruling out revisions. Not just making it difficult (which I think is good), but making it so very difficult as to be **almost** impossible to revise.

I look at revisions in a non-ecclesial sphere-- the government of the United States-- and I see a very different milieu. If I proposed to amend the US Constitution (let's call it Amendment ABC), I can toil for years to inform elected officials and ordinary citizens about the merits of Amendment ABC without being threatened with deportation.

I don't think the PCA should take its cues or authority from the US's Constitution, so I'm not suggesting that revising the Westminster Standards should be the same as amending the Constitution. But I am suggesting that one who proposes revising Westminster faces such a very high bar-- with serious personal consequences-- that Westminster is almost functionally un-revisable.

So I return to my question: please help narrate a scenario in which proposed revision XYZ would successfully revise the Westminster Standards.

As a someone in the PCA, I am afraid that we are very good at pointing out the theological flaws in others and not really open to learning from those that we disagree with. We adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion when it comes to others, and a hermeneutics of charity when it comes to ourselves. But this betrays one of the foundational pillars of our tradition: total depravity. In fact, wouldn't it be more faithful to the Reformed tradition to embrace a hermeneutics of suspicion in regards to ourselves and a hermeneutics of charity in regards to others. Other Christians are better than their systems; we are often mistaken in ours. To quote Miroslav Volf, the PCA often struggles from theological "stranger anxiety". Can't we look into the face of the "other" (Levinas) and see someone/thing that we enjoy and can learn from? I hope so.

I am a big fan of Harvie Conn and Herman Bavinck. Top notch Reformed theologians in my opinion. Yet humble enough to be critical of their own tradition. I think both of these thinkers can help us as we wade through these denominational issues.

Are we ready to take these two quotes seriously? Can the PCA accept criticism and be humble enough to reform?

"The creeds can take on a universalistic dimension that reduces their confessional character to an in-house, defensive posture. They become documents to exclude people from the church, not to include them."

-Harvie Conn

“[Roman] Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a Protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride.”

- Herman Bavinck

GL, I appreciate very much the force of what you're saying. It seems as though confessionalism is often defended from critics who would compare us to Roman Catholics by noting that our confessions are admitted to be fallible and subject to revision. But from the inside, we deem them infallible as a practical matter.

Historically, I think we have to admit that the Reformed churches typically revise their confessions only when something in them has become an embarrassment-- a public liability rather than a theological mistake.

It seems that the revisions happen when a vast majority is able to publicly admit that they stopped believing some part of the confession a long time ago.

To deal with issues around the periphery, we have the phenomenon of a (written) confession within the (larger and in part unwritten) confession. It becomes understood that officers may customarily take exception to various parts of the confession. Yet the confession is not revised-- we rely intead on unwritten consensus as to where the Confession is too narrow. At the same time, you have those who understand themselves to hold to the Confession, but have others within the denomination charging them with infidelity to the Confession because they don't derive the right doctrine from it. So the Confession is also too broad, and we need ad hoc committees to correct such errors.

I take well Bob's point in reply to me yesterday that any human document will have its limitations, and the WCF has held up remarkably well. But maybe we think part of the reason it has held up well is because we don't count the countless divisions within the Reformed community against it. It's worth asking whether we should.

GL: I'm not sure why you think the BCO is such a bad place to go to figure out revision of the standards. At least two times the PCUSA revised its confession in both good and bad ways, the first on the magistrate in the 1780s, and the second on the Holy Spirit and Love of God in 1903 (1940 or so for the PCUS). So what you do is bring an overture to your session, move it to presbytery, then to GA, and then let the presbyteries decide whether or not to ratify the GA's action.

I don't know why this wouldn't work right now on exclusive psalmody for instance. No one in the PCA or OPC practices it except for a handful of congregations. I doubt a move to revise would get you in much trouble.

For more contentious matters, it would likely be harder to revise. But I don't see how the situation would be any different from revising the Constitution of the U.S., or why the sociology of knowledge and culture only applies to little denominations but doesn't seem to follow for huge bureaucracies like our bloated republic.

Anyway, if your a member in the PCA, I think the possibility of excommunication (e.g. deportation) is unlikely. If you're being examined to be an officer, I could see how proposing revisions could be a speed bump in the operations. But if you're ordained, I also think it's highly unlikely that you'd be disciplined for suggesting revisions. You should attend the courts of the church sometime. You'd be amazed (maybe discouraged) to see how little unanimity exists on a range of issues. Which makes me think you've created a straw man of confessionalism.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Welcome to CGO

  • Welcome to Common Grounds Online. Readers of Common Grounds have suggested a website to continue the explorations they began in the book. In keeping with the interactions of Professor MacGregor, Brad, Lauren and Jarrod, the theme of this site is ‘learning and living the Christian story.’

    I have invited friends, and a few friends of friends, to communicate aspects of the Christian story that have been significant in their own lives. We’re all trying to find joy and pleasure in this life and the next, but often we forfeit the joy that could be ours by living out foolish, competing scripts. What distinguishes Common Grounds Online Contributors is not our own goodness, achievement or service, but rather the recognition of our need of God’s grace abounding in our lives.

Follow Us

CGO Contributors